British government to publish proposals for new nuclear missile arsenal

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to lay out plans Monday for a new multibillion-pound nuclear deterrent, a move expected to be among his last major acts as premier and one likely to cause friction in his governing Labour Party.

Blair's office said he would publish a proposal paper and outline for lawmakers the government's preferred option for replacing Britain's current nuclear submarine-based defense system.

Britain's fleet of four nuclear-powered submarines, which are each capable of carrying up to 16 nuclear-armed Trident missiles, are expected to end their operational life by 2024.

Though some legislators had urged the government to try to extend the life of the current fleet and delay a decision, both Blair and his expected successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown, pledged to deliver a recommendation to lawmakers by the end of this year.

A special hourlong Cabinet meeting was convened Monday to approve the proposal, a few hours before it was announced, but Blair's office rejected claims the prime minister had committed to a decision on his favored option without the input of colleagues.

"Fundamentally, this decision will be how to protect the country," Blair's official spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with government rules. "Part of that context is that it is not just an unstable world, but an unstable world in which countries, which are far from stable democracies, are trying to acquire nuclear weapons."

Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said Iran and North Korea would see Blair's decision as a vindication of their own aspirations.

"What evidence is there that those countries are watching to see what we are doing?" Blair's spokesman said.

However, he said Blair would likely approve a reduction in the number of warheads in Britain's nuclear arsenal a concession seen as aimed at appeasing the anti-nuclear lobby.

The Guardian newspaper, citing unidentified sources, reported that Blair would order the number of nuclear missiles to be cut from 200 to 160.

At the submarine fleet's naval base in Faslane, Scotland, around 100 campaigners held a rally to protest Blair's decision.

Lawmakers will be asked to vote on the proposal by March 2007, allowing three months for debate, reports AP.

Britain's first Trident submarine, the HMS Vanguard, went on a maiden patrol in December 1994.

Opponents of a replacement system including nuclear disarmament campaigners claim the new fleet is likely to cost as much as 76 billion pounds (US$150.6 billion; Ђ113 billion).

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